Ar Thóraíocht Taistil – Ho Chi Minus 1

****LEAGAN BÉARLA FAOI – ENGLISH VERSION BENEATH***

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An chéad rud a rith liom nuair a chuala mé an preabadh ísle, domhain i bfhad uaim is mé ag tógáil céime amach roimh éirí na gréine in Ho Chi Minh, ná go raibh an ‘oíche amach’ aréir nach raibh diúltaithe agam ach cúpla uair a chloig roimhe sin le mo chairde nua ón mbrú fós ar siúl. Bhí mé leath ag siúl go bhfeicfinn ag teacht ar ais iad leath-dallta timpeall an chúinne, nó ag léimt ó chúl ceann de na tacsaithe-moto nach molfainn d’aon turasóirí lena dtaitníonn a gcuid seilbhe luachmhara leo comh luath is a dúisíonn ceantar na mbackpackers in Saigon le titim na hoíche.

Is mé an leanacht liom ar an tslí aitheanta anois don pháirc láirneach, ag trasnú sráid Le Loi nach raibh ach ábhairín níos ciúine ansin ag 4 ar maidin is a bhíonn i rith an lae, bhí muintir na sráide gafa ag ‘glanadh’ deannaigh ó áit go háit ar an tsráid le scuaib fite, is iad ag réiteach le haghaidh trácht na maidine. Thug mé le fios nach cur isteach drochbheasach ón oíche roimh ré agus ‘Happy Hour’ ag leanacht ar aghaidh go ‘All Hours’, a bhí sa cheol leanúnach a chuala mé ag briseadh ‘suaimhneas’ na cathrach, ach a mhalairt san iomlán a bhí i gceist. Bhí orm athbhreathnú a dhéanamh sular thuig mé i gceart a bhí os mo chomhair – grúpa ollmhór d’mhná meanaoiseach Vítneamis i lár spás oscailte sa pháirc, gleasta in leggings agus tléinte ildáite, agus iad uilig ag gluaiseacht le chéile ar nós airm aisteach polyester, in am don chuisle leanúnach nár shíolraigh ó áit ar bith faoi leith go bfhaca mé – ní raibh sé fiú geal faoin am seo. Faoi dheireadh d’airigh mé go raibh cead agam stanadh a thabhairt ar ais do dhaoine a thugann dom iad comh minic sin anseo, mo chraiceann geal agus gruaig rua mar chúis grinn do go leor daoine áitiúla – tuigim go bhfuil mé aisteach, ach ní bhíonn mise ag déanamh aeróibicí sa pháirc ag a 4 ar maidin!!

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Bhí trácht cloiste agam ar an nós seo sa Chambóid, ach ní raibh sé feicthe agam ag tarlu go dtí seo, agus bhí sé deacair an gáire a sheachaint nuair a chonaic mé cúpla bean a bhí tar éis achar a chuir eatarthu fhéin agus an cuid eile sa lár, le casadh agus lubadh leo fhéin ar nós Sims ar an gcosán. Le firinne bhí mé ag iarraidh damhsa leo! Chuir sé an Hokey cokey i gcuimhne dom ón scoil sa Chambóid, ach amháin gur na céadta mná Vítneamis a bhí ann ag bogadh leo féin le púis orthu is iad i mbun cleachtadh coirpe na maidine seo roimh éirí na gréine agus an teas meanlae, seachas grúpa páistí. Is dóigh go dtugann na gluaiseachtaí rialta seo cead dóibh an bia friochta agus oiliúil sin a ithe gan mórán iarmhairtí freisin..
Aisteach.

Is dóigh gur mar gheall nach raibh mé ag súil leis is mé fós leath i mo choladh ag iompar chuile rud gur liom ar domhain faoi láthair a tháinig an oiread sin ionadh orm iad a fheiceáil ann, ach seans mhaith freisin gur mar gheall nach raibh mé tar éis an cathair a shiúl comh luath seo riamh, agus toisc gur ‘early riser’ mé fhéin ar aon chaoi, ghlac mé nár tharla aon rud sular éirigh mise – cé comh mícheart is a bhí mé!

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Thaitin Ho Chi Minh i bfhad níos fearr liom an uair seo, ach amháin an dorm le 18 duine eile sa mbrú buiséadach – ach ar $3 in aghaidh na hoíche, cé atá le gearán faoi? Cé nár éirí ro-mhaith liom roimhe sin mo bhealach a dhéanamh ann, an uair seo go tobann bhí mé go breá in ann na sráideanna a loingsiú go héasca le níos mó muiníne agus píosa cleachtadh taobh thiar dom. Thaitin an ‘World Food Festival’ liom a bhí ar siúl sa pháirc don deireadh seachtaine áirithe seo, thug sé neart deiseanna dom níos mó bia aisteach a thriail agus freisin tuilleadh nósanna aisteacha fheiceáil nach bhfuil mé cinnte a bheadh riamh in ann teacht i bhfeidhm anseo!12351388_10153218838373483_843405117_o

 

D’éirigh liom cúpla bronntanas Nollag Víteamise deirineach a fháil ( níl pictiúirí agam, mar….bronntanais!) le seisiúin crua ag stangaireacht in Aonach Ben Thien sa lár, agus d’fhág mé le tuilleadh ábhair ná mar a bhí ceannaithe agam riamh ar bheagáin airgid. Táim ag dul i dtaithí ar seo!

12348755_10153218958898483_772053028_nSílim freisin go bhfuil mé ag dul i dtaithí ar na nósanna bóithre atá acu…tá feabhas tagtha orm ag transú na bóithre gnóthacha leis na sruthanna gluaisrothair agus gluastáin beaga nach stopann le teada – nílim ag iarraidh ‘jinxáil’ a dhéanamh ar seo, ach tá feicthe agam go n-éiríonn níos fearr leat do chuid spáis fhéin a léiriú le beagán muiníne, seachas a bheith ag braith ar chomhghlacaithe nó turasóir eile an bealach a dhéanamh duit. Chuir mé le líne tráchta is mé fós mar lucht siúl – ag seasamh le gluaisrothar ar gach taobh díom, bhí orm fanacht go dtí gur chas na soilse glas chun leanacht ar aghaidh – chuile fhear (nó bean) dóibh fhéin a bhí ann, agus bhí orm léimt ar thaobh chuig an gcosán comh luath is a lean mo réamhthachta ar aghaidh.

Is mé ag scríobh anois táim i mo shuí in aerfort Changi, Singapore, go héasca an t-aerfort is fearr le cúpla uair a chloig (nó 28) a chaitheamh ar domhan. Táim ag súil leis an gcathair a fheiceáil anois i gceann píosa tar éis an cupáin caife Starbucks seo (an chéad ceann le beagnach 2 mhí!!), agus mar sin fágfaidh mé é seo anois go dtí go bhfaighim áit an ceallaire a luchtú!! Vietnamasté!

 

 

***********LEAGAN BÉARLA – ENGLISH VERSION ********* 

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My initial reaction to hearing a distant, low thumping beat as I stepped out into the 5am pre-dawn of Ho Chi Minh’s ever-chattering streets, was that the ‘night out’ with my new dorm-friends I had reluctantly declined merely hours beforehand had still not come to an end. Early-morning flight-jitters aside, I half expected to meet them stumbling in around the corner, or jumping off the back of otherwise ill-advised moto-taxis that prey on tipsy tourists once the nocturnal backpacker district of Saigon awakens with the dusk.

As I continued on the now familiar route to the central park-area and traversed the only slightly less chaotic dimly-lit Le Loi street as its’ occupants swept dust from one place to another with wicker brushes and geared up for another rush hour, it became clear that the music I was hearing was not in fact an intrusive occupation of an otherwise peaceful morning by the extension of a nightclubs’ ‘happy hour’ to All Hours, but frankly quite the opposite. I had to look twice before I could comprehend the abnormally large gathering of middle-aged Vietnamese women in a central clearing of the park, all dressed in leggings and coloured polyester tshirts and moving robotically in sync to a monotonous and crackling throbbing ‘beat’ that was coming from nowhere within my available line of vision – it was barely even beginning to get bright at this stage. I finally felt a sort of justification and permission to return the stares I am so regularly subjected to over here, my pale skin and ginger hair proving a source of great hilarity to many locals – I know I’m weird, but I don’t do aerobics in the park at 4.30am!!!12351274_10153217909993483_2020078173_n

I’d heard of such practices in Cambodia, but had yet to witness it actually occurring, and I found it hard to hide my amusement as I passed several women who had distanced themselves from the main congregation to thrust and wiggle by themselves to the ‘music’ in a Sim-like manner along the sidelines. I’m not going to lie – I kind of wanted to join in! It reminded me of doing the Hokey Cokey with the kids in the school in Cambodia, only this time it was hundreds of anonymous early-morning Saigonese women shaking and gesturing with frowned and scrunched up faces in what I can only assume is a regular exercise regime that both avoids the midday heat of the sun and also helps to burn off excess calories supplied by the inclusion of oil and grease to every single dish and meal.Bizarre.
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I think the fact that it appeared out of nowhere as I blearily trudged to the bus station with all my worldly possessions (or at least, everything I currently carry with me) was probably the main source of surprise, yet it may also have been due to the fact that this was the earliest I’ve ever roamed the streets of the city, and being accustomed to my name as an early riser had pretty much just assumed that nothing much happened before the hours I found myself outside. How very wrong I was!

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Ho Chi Minh this time around was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, despite the rather dodgy 18-person dorm room in the budget hostel – but for 3 dollars a night, who’s going to argue?! Previous navigation having not proven so beneficial, I all of a sudden found on my return that I knew where to go and had the confidence to somehow find the things I needed, and the timely occurrence of a World Food Festival in the central park during the day and evenings was a fantastic find when it came to securing cheap eats and yet more bizarre interactions with customs and trends that I’m really not sure will ever properly reach our side of the world…!

12348755_10153218958898483_772053028_nI managed to secure some final Vietnamese Christmas presents (no pictures, coz , yknow, PRESENTS) in my most intense haggling-session to date in the Ben Thian Market, and proudly left with more plunder for my money than I have ever before! I’m getting used to this!

I also think that since being alone I’ve become more accustomed to and adept at crossing the roads and incessant torrential flow of motorbikes and vehicles that do not stop or cater for pedestrians whatsoever in their narrow span of vision – I don’t want to jinx this, but I’ve found that in literally just asserting your space and striding with a bit of confidence instead of looking to a companion or fellow tourist to pave the way for you, I’ve had more success crossing the roads and have even found myself adding to a line of traffic as a pedestrian – locked in on four sides by motorbikes, I literally had to wait for the lights to go green before I could walk in any direction – it was literally every man (or woman) for themselves, and I quickly had to leap to one side as soon as my predecessors revved forwards.

 

As I write now I’m sitting in Singapore airport – easily the coolest place I’ve ever had to kill a few hours. Hopefully I’ll get to see a bit of the city as my flight onwards doesn’t leave until the early hours of tomorrow, so I’ll write a post on that as soon as I find a free plug socket….! Vietnamasté!!!

Ar Thóraíocht Taistil – Fánaíocht le Ho Chi Minh

***Leagan Béarla faoi (English Version below)***

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‘Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost…..”….Bhí mise!

Fánaíocht fánaíocht fánaíocht. ‘Sé an t-aon rud a dhéanaimse na laethanta seo. Níor thosaigh mé amach le plean faoi leith. Níl aon rud faoi leith bainte amach agam go fóill seachas meas níos láidre ar mo chuid scileanna loingseoireachta agus cumais féin, agus freisin an t-eolas go bhfuil mé go breá in ann aire a thabhairt dom fhéin agus mo bhealach a dhéanamh go dall (nó bodhar) trí chuinsí nach bhfuil leagtha amach go cinnte romham.

Tuigim go maith freisin agus airím na rudaí beaga sa bhaile – frása a usáidtear i bhfad ró-(Ho Chi) mhinic(!) ach faoi láthair comh fíor domsa gur féidir liom an t-aistear abhaile a shamhlú agus dinnéar na Nollag le fataí breá na hÉireann os mo chomhair a bhlaiseadh cheana féin – is i bhfad ó rís agus soy sauce a togadh mise! (#Notions)
Cairde réidh le casadh tar éis téacs scioptha i ndiaidh na hoibre; bia réidh le hollmhú sna cófraí; nósanna coitianta; ranganna íoga le freastal orthu agus coinní rialta nach bhfagann mórán le bheith buartha faoi ó thaobh athruithe gan fógairt; córas taistil a bhfeidhmníonn sách maith agus caighdean slándála nach dtugann cúis imní ar bith d’germaphobes ar nós mé fhéin…leanann an liosta ‘home comforts’ ar aghaidh. Ach fós, is láidre an maitheas ná an t-olc leis an gcineál taistil, slí bheatha féin-cruthaithe seo, agus mar sin is féidir liom glacadh leis níos fearr anois agus é a shlugadh siar, mar a deirfeá. Níos tábhachtaí ná haon rud eile anois ná gur féidir liom sult a bhaint as na ‘droch’ rudaí freisin, seachas díreach iad a fheiceáil mar gnéithe a bhfuil orm cur suas leo.

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Turtle Tower (yep, sin an t-ainm atá ar!) i lár Hoam Tiem Lake

 

Is príomhchathair Vítneam í Hanoi a bhfuil tréithe cosúla aici le roinnt príomhcathracha eile atá feicthe agam, sa chaoi is nach bhfuil an iomarca deacrachtaí ann í a thrasnú…tuigim go bhfagann an pictiúir atá in éineacht leis an bpóstáil seo a mhalairt le tuiscint, ach thug ár mbrú (Drift Backpackers’ Hostel) léarscáil dúinn (comh maith le bricfeásta agus beoir saor in aisce!) a bhí sonraithe go maith agus a chuir go mór lenár gcúpla lá ann. Níor chaith muid pingin ar iompar taistil an t-am uilig is muid ann, agus fós d’éirigh linn na pointí spéise is mó sa chathair a fheiceáil agus a aimsiú, ar nós Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake), leis an Turtle Tower agus Huc Bridge a mhaireann ann ón Ming Dynasty, iarsmalann Ho Chi Minh, iarsmalann Staire, agus Airm Hanoi, agus Mausaleum Ho Chi Minh (sa phictiúir). D’éirigh linn teacht ar an ‘Bia Hoi’ san oíche freisin, le cúpla deoch ‘al fresco’ i measc na sluaite daoine áitiúla ag stanadh orainn ach ag baint sult as an oíche, muid uilig inár suí ar stólanna beaga plaisteacha ‘nós na cinn a bhí againn sa gháirdín sa bhaile is muid óg, a bhí mar dréimirí dúinn don doirteal sa leithris.

Theip orm teacht ar an studio íoga a chonaic mé ar líne, ach ní gan iarrachta ar mo thaobhse a tharla sé- chaith mé uair a chloig ar fánaíocht thart timpeall an cheannscríbe a leag Google Maps amach dom, ag cuartú in aisce an Zenith Yoga Café nach bhfuil ar an bhfód a thuilleadh, de réir dealraimh. Is ar éigin a d’éalaigh mé ó roinnt mná ag seastáin a bhí ag díol maisiúcháin Nollag bándearga, a d’iarr mé orthu go neamhurchóideach faoin áit – arís leis an bhfánaíocht – sular éirí mé as an iarracht le seacláid te a cheannach ar an mbealach ar ais – tá sé ag éirí fuar i Vítneam! Níor cheap mé ariamh go ndeirfinn na focail sin!

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Bhí roinnt cómhráite thar a bheith spéisiúla agam le grúpaí mic léinn a bhí beartaithe i hataí, cótaí agus geansaithe móra cíbe uair a thóg ár gcosa in aice an locha muid. D’iarr siad cead orainn go cúthaileach pictiúirí a glacadh linn, cómhráite a thaifead ar ghutháin chliste agus taibléidí, agus go bunúsach labhairt leo i mBéarla go nádúrtha faoi rud ar bith – faoinár mbaile fhéin, ár nósanna, tír, agus teanga. D’inis siad liom a gcuid freisin, agus dúirt siad go raibh siad thar a bheith buíoch as an t-am a thug miuid dóibh – ach le fírinne, ceann de na rudaí is spéisiúla le tamaill a bhí ann domsa comh maith! B’iontach spreagúil an díograis a bhí acu i dtaobh foghlaim teanga, agus bhí an cur chuige díreach ceart acu comh maith – labhairt go nádúrtha le cainteoirí dúchasacha, ar bhonn neamhfhoirimiúil…d’fhéadfaimis go leor a fhoghlaim uathu!

Bheadh lá nó dhó eile an chathair a thaisceáladh go deas, toisc gur laghdaigh an fhaitíos a bhí romhainn dul i mbun rudaí a chuartú nuair nach raibh muid cinnte cén treo le tabhairt faoi, ach san iomlán fós thaitin Hanoi liom i bhfad níos fearr go Ho Chi Minh (Saigon!). Chuir sé seo ionadh orm toisc gur Hanoi an phríomhchathair, ach b’fhéidir léiríonn an chaoi go bhfeidhmníonn sé agus an chaoi go bhfuil gach rud comh héasca le loingsiú go leor i bhfábhar an teideal seo. Tá sé fós ina cíortuathail, ach cíorthuathail faoi a thuilleadh smachta atá inti!

Mar fhocal scor, tá cuma melodramatic ar an abairt seo ach caithfear a rá go bhfuil rud eicínt thar a bheith teiripiútach ag baint leis an tuiscint a aimsiú go bhfuil tú go hiomlán caillte agus leat fhéin i gcathair iomlán éagsúil agus i bhfad ón bhaile, agus teacht ar an eolas go bhfuil tú in ann do bhealach a dhéanamh ar ais go háit nó sráid aitheanta faoi leith. Cé nach raibh muinín agat ionat fhéin in aon chor, is mothúcháin thar a bheith láidir é. Cinnte, tá go leor le rá faoin gcumas agus umhlaíocht a bhaineann le ceist a chuir i gcomhair treoireacha nuair nach bhfuil an léarscáil ag obair i gceart (ní mise atá ann, I swear!!) agus tá an dorchadas ag titim go scioptha timpeall ort. Fós is fearr liom an rogha seo a choinneál mar ‘Plan B’, ach sa chás seo, airím go láidir gur fearr i bhfad an modh ‘tástáil agus earraid’ a chuir i bhfeidhm is tú ag taistil thar aon rud eile.

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Ag mausoleum Ho Chi Minh é fhéin

 

 ************LEAGAN BÉARLA *** ENGLISH VERSION 

 

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‘Not All Those Who Wander are Lost..”..I fecking was though! 

Wander wander wander. It’s all I ever seem to do these days. I set out with no specific plans. I’ve achieved no specific sense of anything just yet other than a greater respect for my own capabilities and navigational skills, and also the knowledge that I am actually perfectly able of taking care of myself and finding my way blindly (or deafly) through a lot of seemingly impossible situations. Okay, so maybe I have learned something.

I’ve also come to really appreciate the little things at home – a phrase used all too often, but so true for me at this moment in time that I can vividly imagine Christmas dinner and fine Irish roasted potatoes on the table in front of me – it’s far from rice and curry I was rared! Friends ready to meet at the drop of a text message, food ready to prepare in the cupboard, routines, yoga classes to attend and regular plans that leave little to be apprehended regarding last minute changes, functioning transport systems, general cleanliness and standards of hygiene that give those with germophobic tendencies such as my own no reason to be sent into overdrive…the list goes on. But still, the good outweighs the bad in this kind of travelling, self-induced lifestyle, and as such I’ve also learned to better ‘suck it up’, for want of a better phrase, and most importantly of all enjoy it, instead of merely enduring.

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Hanoi is a city akin to several other capital cities I’ve visited in that it it is actually fairly managable to navigate…I know the initial picture and caption in this post suggests otherwise, but our hostel (Drift Backpackers’ Hostel) provided us with a map (along with free breakfast and beer!) which honestly made our few days there seem so much easier. We didn’t spend a dollar (or dong) on transport the entire stay, and still managed to find and see some of the main attractions the city has to offer, including the Turtle Tower and silver Pagoda, the night markets, History museum, Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum (pictured), Women’s museum, and Bia Hoi old quarter for several beverages ‘al fresco’ – seated at night along a crowded street on tiny plastic stools like the ones we used to have in the garden and use as stepladders to reach the sink in the loo at home.

Considering the streets all have actual names, instead of numbers which don’t match up to any neighbouring street or follow any sensible sequence of address or postal code (ahem, here’s looking at you Phnom Penh..!), we actually found ourselves not needing the map to find the more local places after a day or two!

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Hidden gems and doorways around every turn...

 

I failed to find the yoga studio I’d located online, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying or any failure on my part – I wandered the 100 metre area of where Google Maps had led me searching in vain for the non-existent Zenith yoga café, asked numerous people and even ended up almost buying some tacky pink Christmas decorations just to fend off a particularly pushy vendor lady whose shop I unwittingly wandered into on a whim – again with the wandering – before accepting defeat and buying a hot chocolate on my way back. It has actually begun to get cold in Vietnam. I never thought I’d say thse words!

Fascinating conversations were had with local students wrapped up in hats, coats and scarves who approached us nervously whenever we strayed near the lake, looking to record conversations with us in English, pose for photos, and mostly hoping to maintain a sensible conversation with a native speaker for more than a few minutes. Their dedication was frankly inspiring, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to them and exchanging knowledge, traditions, and facts about our own countries that couldn’t have been shared otherwise. They also had the perfect way of approaching language learning, which was fascinating to see in practice – speaking naturally and informally to native speakers in a casual setting. We could learn a lot from them….

I would have liked a bit longer to explore the city as I felt once we got a grip on the basic layout of the place it became an awful lot less daunting to go searching for things without knowing exactly where they were, but in general I much preferred it to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)! This surprised me considering Hanoi is the capital, but maybe it’s functionality and general heightened sense of accessibility says a lot to support this choice. It’s still chaotic, but nowhere near the rat races of Ho Chi Minh!

It sounds fairly cheesy, but there is something extremely theraputic about getting completely lost in a strange city and managing to somehow find and guide yourself back to an area of relative familiarity, taking a chance at each turn and trusting basic instincts to lead you right again. Of course there’s also a lot to be said for being able to admit defeat and ask for directions once it starts getting dark and you can no longer see the street signs or map in front of you, but I like to think of this option always as Plan B – in this case, I feel trial and error is always the best way forwards.

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At the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself..!

 

 

Elephants, Eco-tourism, and the Express Bus from Hell

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Jungle Overview…

“If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet” – Rachel Wolechin

Modes of transport vary from country to country, city to city, year to year and even day to day if you’re lucky enough to live in a place that offers them all at a low cost. Buses, trains, cars, trams, taxis, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, bicycles, and not to mention the good old reliable two feet attached to our own bodies, it seems we have built industries and businesses surrounding the very nature of human kind to move about from place to place.
It’s ironic that as I write this in an illegible scrawl on pages of a notebook containing my budget for the next week I am actually en route to Ho Chi Minh city, having decided not to renew my Cambodian visa and instead use the remaining time I have in Asia to do just that – move about and see as much as I can see. This particular bus is honestly the most comfortable and luxurious form on transport I’ve taken since being here – it’s a new service with Virak-Buntham Travel which connects Siem Reap in Cambodia directly to Ho Chi Minh city, bypassing the MarioKart streets and crazy traffic of Phnom Penh completely. The discovery of this route was a godsend, especially after our fairly dodgy experiences organising buses so far- our journey to and from Sen Monorem in the East proved a particularly painful (physically too!) stretch of 13 hours in total, with necessary stops in Phnom Penh leaving us feeling we maybe should have reconsidered our route. This was the only service available at such a price, however, and the prospect of meeting the elephants of Mondulkiri at the side of the cramped, uncomfortable and downright dangerous journey was enough to make me suck it up and convince myself the distinct pong of urine combined with ageing fried food and unwashed feet was actually a cultural delicacy that I was privelged to be experiencing.

We were crammed into a rickety piece of metal alongside our bags, several packages with Khmer addresses scrawled across them, sacks of potatoes under each chair and a dubious looking plastic bag containing a mystery kind of gooey substance, the level of English of our fellow passengers ranging from awkward nod to expressionless blinking and complete silence.
Think of the elephants”, I found myself chanting along in time to the din of Cambodian wailing coming from the phones of the teenage girls behind us, who had spent a good 15 minutes staring at my skin before proceeding to provide a DJ service (free of charge!) for the entire bus.

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Tree Lodge Guesthouse

‘Mr.Tree’ from the Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary and affiliated Tree Lodge Guesthouse picked us up from the station in Sen Monorem, darkness having beaten us there and prevented us from grasping a good bearing in the directions from town. I’ve never been a fan of arriving places at night time purely for this reason, but I think we were just so relieved to be removed from our foetal positions aboard the death wagon of appalling aromas that it didn’t really matter what time it was.
The family-run Tree Lodge Guesthouse provides treetop accomodation just outside Sen Monorem town and overlooking the mountainous forests of Mondulkiri. Childhood fantasies come true, sleeping in treehouses with hammocks and access via ladders and steep wooden steps was made all the more exciting with the prospect of trekking with elephants the following morning – even the giant bugs and flies who shared our dinner and room for the evening couldn’t dampen our spirits at have made it this far. A local menu including avocado and fresh fruit shakes cheered us up immensely too.

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Trekking in the Forest

Next morning we woke to a cockerel crowing, bugs and birds chorusing a new day in the forest. Humidity and Monica Gellar hairstyles aside, I was pleased to note a significant drop in temperature as we’d ascended the mountain, and the cool breeze which billowed out my clothy overshirt was refreshing as we sat in the back of Mr. Tree’s open-top jeep on our way into the jungle.

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Have you guessed I love elephants?!

The brilliant thing about the Mondulkiri Elephant Project is that it has been set up as a means of providing care and rehabilitation for abused and mistreated elephants. As Mr. Tree explained in perfect English during an extremely passionate introduction to the project, it remains one of only two organisations in the whole of Cambodia which does not exploit their elephants in any way or use them against their will as modes of transport, one-trick circus animals, or decorative additions to a money-making tourist scam. This is eco-tourism at it’s finest. 100% of the funds generated by the Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary is pumped straight back into the care and maintenance of the elephants, their highly skilled mahoots, and the upkeep and security of the 123 acre forest itself in which they reside. Mr. Tree stressed the importance of the forest to his tribespeople, and explained how they managed to push a decree through in October 2014 prohibiting any intrusive, destructive, or building work within the existing perimeters of the forest, something he firmly believes would not have been possible without the success of the Elephant Sanctuary Project. In a symbiosis which has worked thus far maintaining peace and balance within the forest, it seems they have slowly but surely gained the trust of their 4 previously abused and tortured elephants in a similar manner.

For centuries the elephants in Cambodia have been used as a means of getting both very heavy and very important things from A to B. one only has to look at the ancient stones which pave the way in the Angkor Wat temples (more on that in the next post!) to see the holes in each where they were fastened using bamboo shoots and rope to elephants who pulled them for miles at a time to reach their destination. In order for these giant and powerful creatures to actually succumb to this work and be controlled by the humans who conscripted their service, they underwent cruel and brutal ‘training’ in their youth, which involved them being chained up for days on end and beaten when they attemped to escape. This is still happening today.

Though the chains are stronger than the young elephants at the time of imprisonment and succeed in keeping them stationary despite their struggling, Mr. Tree described sadly how as the elephants grow to a strength and power easily matched to the bonds of their chains, their struggling and will to escape lessens as they gradually stop trying to push against the chains. They are then seen as trained and fit to serve the owners, whips also being used to ensure their diligence and loyalty.

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Happy

You cannot ride the elephants in Mondulkiri, and the tour description of ‘jungle trek’ is really a glorified explanation of what they actually do here.
Because these elephants are free.
It makes such huge and wonderful sense to simply provide visitors with a glimpse into the lives and natural habitat of the elephants and their mahoots. Instead of forcing a route upon them day after day and camera-clad gawping Westerners stopping at set intervals to take pictures of them, visitors to Mondulkiri go where the elephants go. The mahoots act merely as satellite dishes to keep track of their elephants’ whereabouts in order for a tour group to find them, observe briefly and tempt with bananas, then follow at a distance as soon as the elephants have gotten bored and decided to wander onwards. It’s such a humane and natural system which benefits everyone within the community that I honestly am so so proud and happy to even have had the chance to experience it.

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Gentle Giants

In treating the elephants as the majestic, gentle and highly intelligent creatures that they are, the mahoots and staff of Mondulkiri have earned their respect, and Igot the impression they even enjoyed being fed huge bunches of bananas at a time, and followed to the streams to swim. After observing Lucky, Princess, Sophie and Ginzaag for a time as they filled up on branches and shoots and leaves of the protected forest, we were treated to a lunch of rice, beansprouts, spinach and vegetables in the treetop Jungle Lodge. An hours’ chilling in the hammocks there split the day up nicely, after which we followed the mahoots’ whistles to the riverside to find the elephants bathing. Although we were lucky in that our day for the tour seemed to be a fairly typical day for them, the success and value of the treks here really is at the mercy of the elephants themselves. It just further goes to show how fair treatment, equality and balance lead to a happier and healthier environment for all living things to exist in harmony (forgive me for sounding like a tree hugger here!)

12243634_10153183145423483_167972287_nAfter an exhausting yet exhilarating day at the Elephant Project, it was back to the TreeLodge and our friends Mr. Bathroom frog and Balcony Bat for what was one of the deepest and longest sleeps I’ve had in weeks. We awoke refreshed and ready to power through another 6 hour hurtling Gringotts’-cart shuttle van ride back to Phnom Penh. This time the pictures of our new elephant mates kept us occupied, along with various games of ‘guess the marinated insect’ at the market stalls of the hourly toilet breaks. I wouldn’t dare taste any, but it reminded me of Timone and Pumba’s jungle-introduction for Simba in The Lion King.

I felt somewhat better about taking the bus and putting my life in the hands of someone who doesn’t speak my language knowing that it meant I’d helped ensure that even some of Cambodia’s remaining wild elephants are still free roam where they want, responsible only for the transport of themselves from watering hole to the groups of Westerners they must see as irritating yet reliable banana-vending machines.

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Princess

I’d urge anyone to visit the Mondulkiri project, the tours and information provided is extremely well-delivered and easy to understand, and the accomodation, though you don’t have to stay at the Tree Lodge (not to mention fun!) accomodation. Bug spray is a must, as well as comfortable walking shoes and bum-pad for the bus journey there!!

Useful Links:
Virak- Buntham Travel
Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary
Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary Facebook
Tree Lodge Guesthouse